Esteemed nature writer Robert Macfarlane calls Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense ‘a beautiful book; wise and sharp-eared as its subject.’ Darlington, who has a PhD in Nature Writing and teaches Creative Writing at Plymouth University, has honed in on the owl as her focus in this part-memoir, part-historical musing, and part-nature book.
The book’s blurb sets out our fascination with the often elusive creatures, who have roamed the earth for over 60 million years: ‘Owls have captivated the human imagination for millennia. We have fixated on this night hunter as predator, messenger, emblem of wisdom or portent of doom.’ Here, Darlington ‘sets out to tell a new story’, by going on ‘wild encounters’ throughout the British Isles, actively looking for different native owl species. In her prologue, she further explores this enchantment which owls have had upon humans; they have ‘been part of our landscape, psychological context and emotional ecology from the moment Homo sapiens became self-aware.’ She then sets out the differing ways in which owls have been viewed in different cultures and historical periods, from the ‘guardianship of the underworld’ in Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures, to the wisdom and courage imbued upon the owl by the Ancient Greeks.
Darlington takes the decision to extend her project, seeking to ‘identify every European species of this charismatic’ bird, and travelling to Spain, France, Serbia, and Finland to see them in the wild. In order to undertake her research, Darlington set out to ‘scour the twilit woods, fields and valleys of my home archipelago and then reach further afield, learning about the ecology and conservation of these night-roaming raptors, about their presence as well as their absence. What was their place in our ecosystem; how and why have we made them into stories, given them meanings, wrapped them with all the folklore and superstition that we could muster?’
Early on, Darlington explains her reasoning for this particular project, writing: ‘So what can a writer do, faced with a world whose wildness appears to be unravelling?… This is the story of my journey to explore those ecological details, paying attention to the incremental shift owls have experienced, and still are experiencing, from wildness to a kind of enforced domesticity. I wanted to immerse myself in their world, from the wild owls to the captives that are kept in aviaries and sanctuaries and beyond, to look into the mythology, kinship, otherness and mystery that wild owls offer.’
Woven in with her research about owls, and the adventures which she goes on, is the fact that her autistic teenage son, Benji, ‘succumbs to a mysterious and disabling illness.’ In the book’s prologue, she reflects on her decision to continue with her project: ‘If I had known my year of owls was to be so difficult I might have faltered. The illness stretched out into one, then two, then three years. Benji did not get better. Alongside the fears and challenges my owl research slowed and expanded.’ However, she does recognise a real positive of still continuing her research, despite her son’s predicament: ‘… far from distracting me from my family and my roots, my journeys deepened my sense of home and my ability to listen to what was near.’
Darlington opens Owl Sense by describing an encounter which she has with a young Great Grey Owl in Devon, whose handler has taken her to a public place to ensure that she gets used to people. When she touches the owl, Darlington writes: ‘Her softness took my breath away. Deadly beauty. She turned her face towards me and I noticed its astounding circumference. There is a narrow area that falls between pleasing and preposterous, I thought, and this owl’s circular face and bright yellow eyes fitted into it with perfect grace.’
I very much enjoyed the way in which Darlington sets out her memoir. Its structure is simple; eight different sections correspond to eight species of owl: Barn, Tawny, Little, Long-eared, Short-eared, Eurasian Eagle, Pygmy, and Snowy. These chapters are both separate and interconnected, and allow her to weave in her own journeys across the continent. Her fixation upon these species allows her to take part in some fascinating, and important, research: she works on a barn owl population survey in Devon; finds fledged Tawny owlets close to her friend’s secluded house; travels on an ecological trip to Serbia, the best place in the world to see Long-eared owls; and spots the smallest owl in the world, the Pygmy, in southeastern France, with a highly enthusiastic guide.
As well as the efforts which are being made to help different owl species around Europe, Darlington also draws attention to the problems which they face in the wild, from the wide use of rodenticide which poisons the owls’ food supply, and then the owls themselves, to the loss of habitat.
Owl Sense is as deeply personal as it is a wider treatise on why owls are so important, and the ways that we can protect them. I found Darlington’s authorial voice to be warm, honest, and filled with moments of beauty. Her prose is so informative, but suffused with a light and engaging touch. She notices the tiniest things, and draws our attention to their importance accordingly; for instance, the power which she weaves into a description of the calls of barn owls near her home: ‘… a screech, then a reply, as if they were throwing lightning bolts to one another, as if each was catching the other’s cry in its craw and lobbing it back.’
Reading about Darlington’s devotion to such a magnificent creature was a real treat, and I am very much looking forward to picking up her earlier work about otters as soon as I possibly can. Owl Sense is a lovely, and thought-provoking book, which is sure to appeal to any lover of nature writing. I did find some of the comparisons which Darlington drew between the owls and her own family a little cheesy, but for me, this was the only downside, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest.